Sunday, 26 February 2017
November / December 2008
From David Skorton
An Open Letter to the President-Elect
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Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Dear Mr. President-Elect: Congratulations on your election to our nation's highest office. We all appreciate the extraordinary challenges you face regarding the economy, climate change, health care, and the international situation.

To keep America strong, the times require greater efficiency and effectiveness throughout government and in all our institutions. I respectfully suggest that our national well-being also depends on contributions that can be made by our great research universities. I hope you will view these extraordinary institutions not as another special interest but as your asset, to be deployed aggressively and effectively in a bold partnership that will maintain and enhance America's greatness. Four critical issues require your attention:

David SkortonFirst, we need to work together to realize the goal of putting higher education within reach of all Americans. They must have the knowledge and skills necessary to function effectively in the global economy, and we need to make sure that the cost of higher education does not prevent our citizens from developing these abilities to the fullest. And as important as science and technology are to the nation's interest, so are critical thinking and the cultural and ethical context that can be gained only from a liberal education in the arts, humanities, and social sciences.

We must work within our universities to improve affordability and accountability. We have a responsibility to keep costs down through efficient administration, to develop new non-public sources of revenue, and to devise pricing structures that make need-based student aid a central component. But the federal government also must play a significant and increasing role in making higher education affordable, especially for those families without the financial capacity to assume substantial debt as a method of securing a college education.

Given the needs of our communities and the strong interest that many students have in public service, I hope you will consider offering college tax credits or tuition grants in exchange for a significant amount of community service. Everyone—students, families, and the nation—would benefit from such an approach. I hope you will also make more, and more substantial, need-based student aid a high priority of your administration.

Second, I hope we can depend on you to support university-based research as one of the key tools for maintaining America's ability to innovate and to ensure our continuing scientific and technological leadership. Some of this investment should be directed toward fields that promise substantial payoff in the short- to medium-term, including biotechnology, information technology, nanoscience, and the biomedical sciences.

A significant fraction of the federal investment, however, should support bold basic research, which may not bring immediate economic benefits but offers the prospect of transformative long-term results. The federal government's investment in basic research during the second half of the twentieth century laid the foundation for America's economic strength for two generations.

There is a great need, now only partly addressed, to support the work of younger researchers from whom we are likely to gain the most innovative ideas. There is an even more critical need to continue support for those who have proven worthy of the initial investment as they move into early mid-career. There is a similarly critical need to fund high-risk, high-return research.

Third, your administration should encourage the translation of research results into products and processes that can be developed and marketed in the private sector. Most major research universities are already involved in technology transfer, but their efforts are less effective than they might be, partly because of a lack of venture capital and partly because of deficiencies in the mechanisms for the protection of intellectual property. The federal government can help capture the full economic benefit of university research by reforming the patent system to encourage innovation and by preserving and extending tax credits for research and development.

Finally, I urge you to employ American universities and their superb faculties as an asset for building capacity in the developing world. This important use of higher education for the global good can and will improve our relations with countries around the world and enhance their opportunities for personal and societal fulfillment.

Times of great crisis call for great vision. The American people have entrusted you with their future, and I urge you to use your new mandate not only to address the immediate challenges facing our nation but also to set it on a bold course for the future that fully develops our creativity, knowledge, and capacity for innovation.

David J. Skorton
President, Cornell University

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Comments (4)Add Comment
written by Robyn Greene, November 24, 2008
Dear President Skorton - Years ago - my husband and I wanted to fund merit only - non-need based testamentary scholarships. A bunch of them. We went to Cornell first - and put a bequest in our wills. Cornell always told us these scholarhips had to be "need based". In Cornell's opinion - "need based" meant "poor people only need apply". We fought with Cornell for years on this issue. About 4 years ago - our youngest (twin) nieces went to college. Their father - my brother - is a doctor who actually treats sick people (he's a nephrologist). He doesn't do botox. I don't know how much he makes - probably no more than $200,000 a year before taxes - but - under Cornell's rules - his children - my nieces - would not have been entitled to one dollar of aid from our scholarship fund - even though they were co-valedictorians in their high school class. Over $80,000 a year to send your kids to school is a lot when your pre-tax income is $200,000.

At that point - my husband and I said - what are we - morons? Giving money only to poor people - and not helping anyone in the middle class like us? So we changed our wills. And gave our scholarship fund to the University of Florida (we live in Florida but neither my husband nor I went to school there). Where school not only costs a lot less (our money funded a lot more scholarships - and the State of Florida when able would match our funds 2 to 1) - but where the institution was eager to embrace the idea of non-need based merit scholarships.

Anyway - you want a school where everyone either lives on the Upper East Side of New York - or could be a character in The Wire - you're well on your way. Very high. Very low. Nothing in the middle. As for us middle/upper middle class folk who are well-educated - and would like our family members to wind up in the same place - at least on our part - we're shopping our dollars elsewhere. Robyn Greene - This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it (BA '68/HLS '71)
written by E. M., November 24, 2008
As a recipient of financial aid while a student at Cornell, I would like to emphasize that Cornell has a very diverse student population and financial aid program that allows students from all backgrouds to afford an education. Many students at Cornell came from a family like mine; single parent household, solid middle class (my mother was a high school teacher).
written by Robyn Greene, November 24, 2008
E.M. - You are wrong. The financial aid programs at many high priced schools - including Cornell - do not allow students from all backgrounds to afford an education. Specifically - they exclude many middle class - and many upper middle class people (depending on one's definitions of these groups in terms of income). Forty thousand plus after tax dollars is a lot of money for most people in this country - except the very wealthy - even if you just have one child in college (and many people have 2 or more). Note that at the same time most people are sending children to college - they are also worrying about saving for their own retirements - and also in many cases having to care financially for elderly parents who may need skilled nursing facilities or similar. A typical "sandwich generation" dilemma.

I think financial aid is important because the cost of private colleges has reached the point of absurdity. When my husband went to school (he is also HLS '71) - his father earned perhaps $18,000 a year - and was raising three children. He couldn't afford to contribute much if anything. But tuition room and board at HLS then was less than $2,000 a year. My husband actually paid his way through law school by working part time as a bartender during the school year and working during the summers on a Ford motor company assembly line. Today - of course - it is almost impossible for a student to be self-supporting this way.

So my quarrel is not with financial aid - but with the ridiculously low income limits for financial aid. There have been some recent efforts on the part of some schools to erase these income limits. But - even at the schools where there have been attempts to erase the line - I fear that recent economic developments affecting university endowments will result in significant setbacks.

Note also that I do not believe - as some people do - in the concept of "diversity" simply for the sake of diversity. I am a member of two minority groups - women and Jews - who had to fight to be treated equally in terms of university admissions (not to mention things like jobs post-school). When I went to school - and it wasn't so long ago - although it has been a few years :) - there were still quotas for women and Jews both at Cornell and Harvard Law School - as well as other Ivy League schools. At Cornell - it was said women shouldn't be allowed to live in dorms where bathrooms had urinals. At HLS - the dean when I entered pronounced "no women should ever take the place of a man at HLS". All I ever fought for was the right to be treated equally. Which - I think - is as it should be. Equality of opportunity for equally talented individuals - not of outcomes. And - if a student is qualified on his or her academic merits - then the outcome of that student's choice of which school to attend shouldn't be changed because his or her parents earn $100,000 a year - and therefore the student doesn't qualify for financial aid at particular schools because an arbitrary and unrealistic income line has been drawn in the sand.

And if equality of opportunity means schools wind up with too many Asian - Jewish - female - or "you fill in the blank" students (at least for some) - so be it. Once one leaves academia - one doesn't want to deal with "diverse" lawyers - doctors - financial advisors - engineers - teachers for your kids - or even "diverse" people in blue collar jobs - the people who make your cars or fix your appliances or mow your lawn. You want competent people - the best you can find and afford. I can tell you that my husband may have provided "diversity" on the Ford motor company assembly line - but I don't think you would have ever wanted to buy a car that he had anything to do with. And I don't think you'd want to hire him as a handyman around your house either :).

Finally - don't think all of this isn't having an affect on academics. The average SAT scores at the University of Florida now are higher than the average SAT scores in my class at Cornell. Robyn
written by Dave N, February 28, 2009
My four siblings and I emigrated to the U.S. from South Vietnam in 1975. We all graduated valedictorians from our respective high schools and went on to Ivy League schools (3 Cornell undergrads, 2 Yale undergrads, 2 Harvard MBAs, 1 Harvard MD, 2 Univ of Chicago MBAs). My parents were highly educated and leaders in Vietnam, but were relegated to manual laborers in the U.S. My mom ran an Int'l bank in Vietnam and swept floors at McDonalds in the U.S. My dad rode a bike 20 miles to and from his office everyday for a year saving enough to buy a used Volkswagen Beetle. We never took social welfare and worked hard earning all that we have. We were eight people renting a 2 bedroom house and earning $30k/yr. My family is grateful to Cornell and Yale for granting us financial assistance.

Cornell accepts students based on merit and awards financial assistance based on need across the spectrum of household income levels.

The Cornell experience offers a quality and diverse student population and let me stress that diversity without quality is meaningless. Having a population of brilliant minds from all over the world promotes mutual understanding, tolerance and collaboration. The people who surround us influence our formation especially in college. The smarter they are, the smarter we become... it's synergistic!

Cornell University's Avg SAT Verbal:700 Math:720ACT:29

University of Florida's Avg SAT Verbal:607 Math:628 ACT:24

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Last Updated ( Wednesday, 12 November 2008 )